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If only the Players were a major ...

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – There is an entire genre in science-fiction writing called alternative history. I read one alt-history novel about how the Civil War would’ve been different if the South had been outfitted with modern automatic weapons sent back from the future by some agenda-driven German racists.

Let me ruin the thick suspense: The South wins convincingly.

Here’s another “what-if" concept for you: How would golf be different today if the Tournament Players Championship (now known simply as the Players) had been designated as a major championship when it was born in 1974?

One thing that would’ve been different is that we would’ve had four decades of traditionalists whining about the Players being considered a major in the same breath with ancient events such as the Masters and the Opens instead of four decades of PGA Tour backers (including players, especially those who won the Players) trying to convince us that it deserves major status.

Wasted breath, either way.

Some historical implications of such a what-if happening might surprise you, however:

Eighteen no longer would be a Holy Grail golf number, as in 18 major professional titles won by Jack Nicklaus. Instead, it would be a more Las Vegas-friendly number: 21. Nicklaus won three of the first five TPCs, as they were called then, thus boosting his total. When Nicklaus captured the 1986 Masters at age 46, it would’ve been No. 21, not No. 18. 

And maybe a young Eldrick Woods would’ve picked a less daunting goal to tack onto his bedroom wall growing up, or maybe he would’ve made sure that he had a better finishing kick to his still-in-progress (sort of) career.

In our real world, Nicklaus has an 18-14 lead over Woods in majors won. In our make-believe world, the scorecard tilts more toward Nicklaus. Woods won two Players titles (2001, 2013), so it’s a 21-16 ballgame. Those are impressive numbers, but after Woods won the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines to get to 14, he was at least two more major championships away from creating full-blown, countdown-to-Jack hysteria. 

In our alternative universe, that one extra TPC victory for Nicklaus made the Torrey Pines playoff victory for Woods a little less meaningful for history. To surpass Nicklaus, Woods still would need six more majors. To put that into perspective, he’d have to have the career of Nick Faldo (a six-time major winner) starting over again in his mid-30s. Woods would be close but not really that close.

The 1997 Masters might be viewed in a different light, too. There was no doubt that Woods dropped jaws by displaying the kind of length that made mighty Augusta National look like a pitch-and-putt course with his 18-under total that set a Masters record, which was tied by Jordan Spieth in 2015.

It also was seen as a social landmark because the Masters represented the Old South, and Woods was the first player of color to win it. In What-Ifsville, however, Calvin Peete, via his 1985 Players victory, would have been the first minority champion – not Woods – 12 years sooner. No doubt the significance of Woods’ winning at Augusta National still would’ve carried plenty of heft, but Woods would have to tip his cap to Peete and the other black pioneers a bit more graciously than he did.

Woods and Nicklaus would be the only players to complete the modern Grand Slam – all five events – and each would have done it twice. The so-called Tiger Slam in 2001 would be even bigger because Woods would have owned all five major-championship trophies – the 2000 PGA plus the 2001 Players, Masters, U.S. and British opens – at the same time, an unprecedented feat.

The thrilling 2015 Grand Slam chase by Spieth never happened, unfortunately. His streak of consecutive major titles would’ve ended at one. Spieth won the Masters in April but did not take the Players the next month, nipping what turned into a summer-long drama in the bud.

One major-championship scoring record still would be standing nearly 25 years later. Greg Norman won the 1994 Players with a stunning barrage of birdies, posting a 24-under total of 264, six shots lower than any major-championship’s score versus par.

We would have added six more 63s to the majors record book, including ones by Norman and Fred Couples, before Branden Grace shot the first 62 in major play last summer at Royal Birkdale.

It was a week for low scores, obviously, because Fuzzy Zoeller shot 20 under to finish as runner-up, which would match Jason Day’s total at Whistling Straits when he won the 2015 PGA Championship. 

Norman, meanwhile, would add a third major to his trophy case, which might offer a little solace to all the others that got away from him.

The agony and the ecstasy would’ve come a lot sooner for some players. Sergio Garcia wouldn’t still have been tilting at ghosts of majors past when he beat Justin Rose in a Masters playoff last year. With his playoff victory over Paul Goydos in 2008, Garcia would’ve gotten over the threshold, and no doubt cast an even harsher light on the playoff format used that year: sudden death, starting at the infamous par-3 17th hole.

We wouldn’t still be living and dying with Rickie Fowler’s quest, either. He made a game charge that fell just short at last month’s Masters, but that wouldn’t have mattered so much because he’d have the 2015 Players in his back pocket. His brilliant run on the closing holes plus his shot-making in the playoff would’ve made that Players a major for the ages. It’s pretty good, anyway.

Viewing the Players as a major, as some Hall of Fame voters quietly do anyway, would’ve burnished the careers of several candidates even more.

Couples, Davis Love III, Hal Sutton and Steve Elkington were all one-hit wonders in the majors category. In this universe, they’ve got three majors apiece and moved up into rarefied air. The questions about Couples and Love getting in would’ve been eviscerated, and Sutton and Elkington would be duly enshrined by now.

Adam Scott’s 2013 breakthrough at the Masters still would’ve been a great day for Australian golf. It just would’ve been Scott’s second major title, along with his 2004 Players Championship.

Phil Mickelson boosts his major count to six with his 2007 Players victory. Martin Kaymer claims three-fifths of the new Grand Slam with his 2014 Players atop his 2010 PGA and 2014 U.S. Open. Legends such as Lee Trevino, Lanny Wadkins and Raymond Floyd add another major. So does David Duval, Tom Kite and Justin Leonard. Jerry Pate becomes the first to win a major using an orange golf ball (sorry about that, Fowler) and celebrate with a swim.

You could take Matt Kuchar off the list of the Ten Best Players Who Never Won a Major. He landed the 2012 Players. And just as the U.S. and British opens have had their fair share of surprise winners (Jack Fleck and Ben Curtis come immediately to mind), the Players brings us Cinderella stories such as Tim Clark, Jodie Mudd, Fred Funk and the Cinderella-iest of them all, Craig Perks.

Yes, the Players Championship would add fascinating lore to major-championship golf history if it had counted.

Now, let me tell you about a second sci-fi novel I just picked up in the discount bin. It’s about how the Allies, Germany and Japan band together during World War II to fend off an attack on Earth by aliens. Seriously, I’m not making this up.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle